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«« Contextualizing the Apocalypse of Paul » Michael Kaler Laval théologique et philosophique, vol. 61, n° 2, 2005, p. 233-246. Pour citer cet ...»

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They are instruments of propaganda, although the desired goal of the propagandistic effort varies from text to text. Thus for example Ptolemy’s Letter to Flora29 is an exoteric document written by a Valentinian teacher to a potential student, while the Interpretation of Knowledge30, also Valentinian, appears to have been written to resolve internal tensions within a Christian community. As L. Painchaud notes regarding this latter text (unpublished) : “Il est vraisemblable que cette communauté ait été divisée en deux groupes, d’un côté une faction de spirituels/charismatiques occupant une position dominante et de l’autre le reste des fidèles. Cherchant manifestement à résoudre ce conflit, l’auteur de l’homélie [the Interpretation of Knowledge] s’adresse aux simpliciores dans la communauté […].” I said above that the Apocalypse of Paul was written to convince non-Valentinians that the Valentinian understanding of the universe was endorsed by Paul, and is thus more authoritative than the non-Valentinian understandings. In order to do this, it had to possess verisimilitude — that is, it had to respond to the expectations of its audience. This need explains the stereotypical ascension apocalypse features that are found in the work, which I also mentioned earlier. By the late second or early third centuries (which is probably the period in which our text was written), the ascension apocalypses were accepted as being reliable guides as to the content of the heavens, and as showing the way that one progressed through those heavens. The author of the Apocalypse of Paul wants his or her text to be considered as being reliable as well, and so adopts the accepted conventions.31 As far as we can tell at present32, he or she does not slavishly follow any one ascension apocalypse, but rather takes stereotypical features common to many of them — although the Testament of Abraham, the

28. Galatians 1:13-17.

29. Preserved in Epiphanius’ Panarion 33,3.1-33,7.10.

30. Nag Hammadi Codex XI,1.

31. It is quite possible as well, of course, that he or she herself believed in these conventions.

32. I am currently in the process of investigating the possibility that both the Apocalypse of Paul and an unattested “seven heavens apocryphon” that inspired several extant Old Irish, English and Latin apocalypses were derived from the same apocalyptic ur-text. Jane Stevenson had earlier argued that this “seven heavens apocryphon” could be descended from the Apocalypse of Paul itself, but in my view this is not very likely.

Instead, the significant similarities between the two works seem, if they are significant at all, to argue for a common dependence of the two works on a third, unattested apocalypse. However, this research is in its early stages.


Apocalypse of Zephaniah and the Ascension of Isaiah may have been particularly inspirational.33 The hero of an ascension apocalypse is usually a respected figure from long ago — thus we see ascension accounts attributed to people like Enoch, Isaiah, Moses, and so on.34 In this case the figure is Paul, to whom a great deal of importance is attached.

At the climax of the Apocalypse of Paul, Paul declares that his mission on earth is “to take captive captivity” — he is a cosmic liberator. In fact, it is not going too far to argue that the Apocalypse of Paul seems to identify Paul with Jesus, showing him (Paul) as being the means by which Christ’s salvific mission is carried out.35 But be that as it may, one can certainly say in general that Paul, like other heroes of ascension apocalypses, is given a great task to carry out upon his return to earth.

This presentation of Paul ties into a side of Paulinism that I discussed above, a truly popular Paulinism that was less concerned with abstruse theological analysis of his writings, and more concerned with the heroic figure of Paul. I am speaking here simply of the tendency to work with Paul’s figure, not with any particular version of that figure. There existed a great variety of understandings of the figure of Paul, or — as one might say — a great variety of possible stories in which Paul could play the lead role. The important thing is that this sort of Paulinism does fit Paul into a story, it turns him into a model for others to emulate.

33. For the Apocalypse of Paul’s apparent debt to the Testament of Abraham, see G. MACRAE, “The Judgement Scene in the Coptic Apocalypse of Paul”, in G. NICKELSBURG, ed., Studies on the Testament of Abraham, Missoula, Scholars Press (coll. “Society for Biblical Literature Septuagint and Cognate Studies”, 6), 1976, p. 285-288. There are aspects of the Apocalypse of Paul’s scene in the sixth heaven that are structurally parallel to the equivalent scene in the Ascension of Isaiah. It seems unlikely that either text directly influenced the other but it is possible that both draw on similar sources. Likewise, in the description of the inhabitants of the fifth heaven the Apocalypse of Paul seems similar to the Apocalypse of Zephaniah.

In this case, where it is a question of content-related issues, direct influence of Zephaniah on Paul does indeed seem possible, especially given that the Apocalypse of Zephaniah seems to have been a popular text, leaving an influence on the Visio sancti Pauli as well (see R. CASEY, “The Apocalypse of Paul”, New Testament Studies, 34 [1933], p. 1-33).

34. They are almost always pseudonymous, with the narrator claiming the identity of a figure from the past. In fact, Paul’s own account of his ascension (2 Cor 12,2-4) is itself a very rare exception to this general rule — and even there he uses the third person, although it is clear that he is talking about himself.

35. With regard to the text’s Christology, there are two curious features. The first is the complete absence of Christ — Paul is enlightened and guided by a Spirit, and even in the higher heavens he is only said to have met “those that were there” or his “fellow spirits.” The second curiosity has to do with the text’s apparent substitution of Paul for Christ. At one point in his ascent Paul declares his intention to return to Earth and “take captive the captivity which was taken captive in the captivity of Babylon,” an allusion to Ephesians 4:8. However, in the Ephesians passage it is Christ who is going to be taking captives, not Paul. Now, as I mentioned earlier, Galatians 1:13-17 was one of the scriptural bases for the Apocalypse of Paul. In that passage, Paul says that “God […] was pleased to reveal his Son to me.” However, this passage could also be read as follows : “God […] was pleased to reveal his Son in me (ἐν ἐμοÚ).” If read in this way (and the Valentinians were well-known for their careful exploitation of nuances and possible alternate meanings of the vocabulary and syntax of the texts they interpreted), the passage links Paul and Christ, implicitly making Christ responsible for Paul’s mission, but also explaining His absence : He is not separate from Paul, a figure which Paul could see or meet, but rather is in some sense within Paul, identified with him, and also identified with Paul’s future activities. This coheres with Heracleon’s belief (which outraged Origen) that pneumatics are essentially of the same nature as God (Comm. In Joh. 13.25).


For some, such as the author(s) of the Pastorals, he was the model of saintly endurance and obedience, patiently carrying out his mission despite all his humiliations and sufferings. For others, such as Marcion, he was more like a new prophet, a revolutionary leader proclaiming the tenets of the new religion of Christ and showing his churches the way to salvation. In the Acts of Paul he becomes an idealized martyr, being led by his proclamation of Christ from one torment to another. For the Apocalypse of Paul, he is recast in the image of a stereotypical apocalyptic hero, who ascends through the heavens and ends up with an interview with God Himself, wherein he receives a great mission that he will carry out on his return to earth.

Thus the text’s Paulinism is assimilated to apocalyptic norms : the specifically Pauline aspects are subordinated to the apocalyptic, so that they add superficial colorations without altering the basically apocalyptic basis of the work. In the case of the apocalyptic and Paulinist currents, then, we see a definite tendency, structurally at least, to privilege the apocalyptic current.

So far then, of the three currents I mentioned above, we see that the Pauline current is definitely subordinated to, or rather incorporated into, the apocalyptic — and there are two ways, which are not mutually exclusive, to explain this. The first has to do with what I discussed above about the use of Paul’s name and status to legitimate the text’s authority. One could write an Apocalypse of Joe Smith, but it would lack the punch that Paul’s name gives. The second way of explaining this has to do with the legendary aspect of the text’s (and thus presumably the author’s) Paulinism. As we saw in the examples cited above, legendary Paulinism appreciated Paul as a heroic figure from the past, cast in some more or less stereotypical mold. Here the mold, or the stereotype, is that of the apocalyptic hero.

When we factor in the third current that the author of the Apocalypse of Paul received and factored into her work, the situation gets a bit more complex. This current is Valentinianism, and it takes precedence over the apocalyptic material — in fact, one could say that it’s the defining current. But whereas the apocalyptic current provided the structure of the text, into which the Pauline material was fitted, the Valentinian material doesn’t actually have as much of an impact of the structure of the text as it does on the interpretation of that structure. For while Paul’s progression through the heavens and the things that he sees there pretty much all follow apocalyptic norms, these events and sights are given Valentinian interpretations. To clarify this point, I will give just one example.

In a common apocalyptic stereotype, the visionary meets God in the seventh heaven, a figure of overwhelming glory and majesty. God graciously reveals secrets about the universe to the visionary, as well as the sacred task that he is to carry out on Earth. Then amidst great jubilation the visionary descends to Earth again. But according to Valentinian thought, the Judeo-Christian God was only an inferior, ignorant deity, who the gnostic would probably have to oppose and overcome. Accordingly, in the Apocalypse of Paul the scene is structured just the way it would be in a conventional apocalypse, even to the extent of describing God with the trappings of celestial glory that one would expect, but as the scene unfolds the God figure is reCONTEXTUALIZING THE APOCALYPSE OF PAUL vealed to be rather weak and petty, in need of enlightenment from Paul, and unable — though he tries — to stop Paul from ascending beyond his heaven, up into realms of which this God knows nothing.

There are other characteristically Valentinian touches which are incorporated in this way into the text : the overall impression that they give is that the apocalyptic tales are factually correct, but that their authors have not understood the true significance of the events that they describe, and that Valentinian thought provides the hermeneutical key which enables one to decipher the real meaning of what goes on in the heavens.


Now, by way of conclusion, I would like to outline the means by which the relationship between these three currents, and the way that they have been organized, relates to the text’s goals.36 As I said above, the Apocalypse of Paul was written to convince its audience that Paul’s ascension to the heavens conformed to what Valentinian thought would lead one to expect from such ascension, and thus that Valentinianism was a more accurate description of religious matters than its competitors, and also that it had Paul’s authority behind it. Accordingly, we can see that the Paulinist element would have been incorporated to add authority to the text, attaching it to a name that the audience would respect. This was a common tactic in the ancient world — speaking with regard only to Paul, there is a huge body of writing attributed to him or allegedly recounting the events of his life, much of which having little or nothing to do with the historical Paul.37 In choosing this approach, then, the author of our text would have been following a well-established custom.

The apocalyptic current, the deliberate use of the clichés of apocalyptic writings, would have made the text convincing to its audience, and quite possibly to its author as well, by responding to their expectations of what the heavens would contain.

Thus, if all went well, the Paulinist and apocalyptic elements of the text would have won over the audience, convincing it that the text was both authoritative and true. This would have prepared the way for the third element, the Valentinian, which

36. In the discussion that follows, I will be writing as if the author knew and planned out what he or she was doing. I would like, therefore, to make it clear that my goal is merely to describe what is going on, and how it interacts with a certain number of limited criteria. Such analyses are necessary, but we must always be careful not to replace our former unreflective trust in the pious ethics of the religious author with an equally naïve, not to say facile, cynicism. I do not wish what follows to give the impression that the author of the Apocalypse of Paul was deliberately thinking, “Aha ! Here’s how I will hoodwink these gullible fools !” Not at all. The problem is to find a way to discuss these things without either imputing such motives to the author, or making the ridiculous and illogical assumption that it is “the text” which does this, all by itself, without an author. As yet I have not resolved this situation — hence the inclusion of this caveat.

37. Including the Pastorals, probably Ephesians and Colossians, perhaps 2 Thessalonians and the second half of Acts — to speak only of works canonized in the New Testament ! To give an example closer in date and purpose to our text : Towards the end of the second century (around the time of composition of the Apocalypse of Paul) an unnamed presbyter wrote the work known 3 Corinthians in order to combat gnosticizing heresies of his day.


one might say piggybacks on the authenticity of the other two currents. Acting parasitically, it uses their status to ensure the acceptance its own message, and it can do this because Valentinianism, like many gnostic systems, relies on a way of looking at things, an exegetical stance. “It ain’t what’s there, it’s how you look at it”, so to speak — and thus the apocalyptic structure can be simultaneously accepted and reinterpreted by the application of a Valentinian hermeneutic, a hermeneutic which relies on the authority of this very apocalyptic structure for its acceptance.

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